Sarah Jones of Walk the Coast takes “The Girls” for a ride in her car. The Girls have become an unexpected social media hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)

Sarah Jones of Walk the Coast takes “The Girls” for a ride in her car. The Girls have become an unexpected social media hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)

PROGRESS 2020: Port Alberni businesses adapt to COVID-19

Small businesses adjust with online orders, new marketing campaigns

When the owners of Dog Mountain Brewing in Uptown Port Alberni first opened their doors back in December 2019, they didn’t anticipate a worldwide pandemic interrupting their business just a few months later.

Robin Miles and Andy Richards spent more than a year transforming the former “Valley Wines & Water” building on Third Avenue into a new microbrewery complete with kitchen, lounge and rooftop patio before the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to temporarily switch to takeout and delivery only.

“It’s been really strange, but then we didn’t really have time to get into much of a routine,” explained Richards. “For us, being new, we might have been able to pivot a little bit easier. We switched immediately to take out and delivery that day.”

They also purchased small-scale canning equipment so they could can their beer, instead of filling glasses or growlers.

“We switched to canning, which is twice as much work,” Richards laughed.

“We were planning on doing it anyways,” Miles added. “That was just our practice run.”

Dog Mountain Brewing isn’t the only business that has had to make adjustments in response to the COVID-19 restrictions. Businesses like Steampunk Café and the Donut Shop added takeout windows, while retail stores like Gayle’s Fashions offered online sales. Twin City Brewing, another Port Alberni brewery, also started canning its beers.

Walk the Coast—a clothing and footwear store located on Elizabeth Street in North Port—started an “isolated try-on system,” where customers could book appointments and try on shoes outside.

“We went through a ton of peroxide,” laughed Sarah Jones, Walk the Coast manager. “But it was nice that we were kind of able to help people that way.”

Although Walk the Coast is considered an essential business because it sells steel-toed work boots, Jones said she and her staff decided to comply with the provincial “suggestion” that retail stores curtail their business.

“We initially closed the store for a couple of days, because we needed to think a little bit,” said Jones. “We were focusing on keeping everyone as safe as possible, our staff as safe as possible.”

For Jones, one of the biggest challenges was related to shipping and receiving.

“We generally order stock a year to nine months in advance of them arriving,” said Jones. “We had received probably half of our spring and summer stock when everything closed down. We’ve had to cancel orders, put them on hold. The first week and a half, I had boxes everywhere around the store of deliveries that were arriving and nobody to sell them to.”

A number of suppliers have been negatively affected by the pandemic, said Jones.

“For spring of 2021, it’s hard to know—are these companies actually going to be there next year?” she wondered. “It makes for interesting buying times.”

Businesses across Canada have been adjusting to the pandemic closures by adopting different marketing techniques. Jones started a marketing campaign known as “Sarah and the Girls” where she takes pictures of a pair of mannequins dressed up around town. The “Girls” have been an accidental marketing hit since they first appeared on the Walk the Coast Facebook page months ago.

“It started as a bit of a joke,” said Jones. “I was having coffee one morning and I thought it was kind of funny that the mannequins were the only people around. I was having coffee with the mannequins. I had no idea it was going to take off like it did,” she laughed.

Dog Mountain Brewing started offering beer deliveries in Port Alberni and across the Island with a “14-day quarantine survival pack.” The concept ended up being a hit, said Richards.

“We were driving from Nanaimo to Campbell River, Parksville to Victoria every Monday to do our deliveries up and down the Island,” Richards explained.

“That really helped us on the marketing side, as well,” added Miles. “Now we can anticipate people coming to visit us when we open back up again.”

For Miles and Richards, the hardest part of the COVID-19 pandemic was being forced to lay off their staff.

“We had so many great people working here,” said Miles. “They waited around for a long time for us to open and we were so excited.”

Dog Mountain had to go down to a staff of three, although they are back up to five as restrictions are easing. The patio is now open, with social distancing restrictions in place and extra cleaning to make sure there is no cross-contamination between customers.

“We actually went out and purchased all new seating for the patio that’s easier to clean,” said Richards. “We’ve incurred quite a bit of cost to reopen. Customers have been very accepting of the rules, so that makes things a lot easier for us,” he added.

Up until the end of May, when federal financial supports were expanded, Richards said Dog Mountain Brewing didn’t qualify for any assistance from federal or provincial governments due to the brewery’s status as a new business. For the same reason, they didn’t want to take out any emergency loans.

“We don’t have enough of a history,” said Miles. “It’s not smart to take on new debt.”

But overall, Richards says, business has been “really good” in Port Alberni.

“For a little while, in the beginning of the COVID shutdown, that was really scary,” he said. “But around Easter weekend, things picked up. The support from the community has been really positive. We’ve kind of been accepted as a part of the community.”

For now, Dog Mountain Brewing is “cautiously” reopening, offering takeout, gift cards and socially-distanced meals on the patio.

“People are talking about the second wave—that’s a real possibility,” said Miles. “We’re being really careful with not over-hiring because of that.”

Other businesses in town are also beginning to re-open.

“People are concerned,” said Jones. “They want to protect their staff, they’re wanting to do things right. There are fines if you don’t do things right, and to pay a fine on top of all this is kind of a scary situation.”

But the overall outlook in Port Alberni, said Jones, is one of hope. In a business resilience survey the Alberni Valley Chamber of Commerce conducted when widespread COVID-19 closures were just occurring, 79 percent of businesses who responded said they were confident they can re-start post-pandemic. Another 13 percent said it would depend on circumstances.

“People are looking forward and thinking about what can happen next, and what they need to do next to keep their businesses vibrant,” said Jones. “Overall, I think it’s a very hopeful group of business people.”

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A dark beer and pretzel sticks hits the spot at Dog Mountain Brewing on Third Avenue in Port Alberni. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

A dark beer and pretzel sticks hits the spot at Dog Mountain Brewing on Third Avenue in Port Alberni. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)